What’s So Bad About Bourgeois Culture?

Conservatives are often accused of being fuddy-duddies for the crime of being old-fashioned.  Take me, for instance.  Musically, I’ve pretty much been stuck in the 80s since, well, the 80s.  I can catch an episode of Miami Vice and still think it’s cool.  And even though I draw the line at trying to squeeze myself into a pair of Sergio Valente jeans, I think I still have a Members Only jacket in the back of the closet somewhere that’s just waiting to come back into style.

I also have a 15 year old daughter who should be absolutely mortified by those things but somehow isn’t.  Moreover, her friends don’t seem to mind the whole throwback-retro aesthetic either.  In fact, they’ve adopted some of it into their own pop culture norms.  That Voltron I used to watch as a kid?  It’s now a Netflix show.  The second season of Stranger Things has them all ready to binge.  It, which shifts the original Stephen King story from the 50s to the 80s, is a monster hit.  And if you’ve walked into a Hot Topic lately, you might feel as though you hopped into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and got dropped off at a Spencer’s circa 1985.

Old fashioned?  You bet.  On the other hand, you don’t see the kids sporting mullets and wearing parachute pants.  Back-masked music tracks haven’t driven too many of them to dabble in black magic.  And while New Kids on the Block are still touring, there doesn’t seem to be any danger of them releasing new material.  In other words, this generation has seen fit to adopt the fun stuff from my generation without indulging in the worst of its excesses.  Keep the good, ditch the bad:  that’s how civilization evolves, dude.

Unless you’re a progressive, that is.

Case in point:  Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, professors of law at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of San Diego, respectively, recently published an op-ed in which they attempted to diagnose the cause of the societal ills that have been making so many headlines lately—among them a weak labor participation rate and widespread opioid abuse among Middle Americans.  As they put it:

The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.

Ah, the good old days!  Philosophically, this is a very conservative argument—for what is the essence of conservatism if not the preservation of values and traditions that have been proven to be the most beneficial to the most people?  Of course, as the Billy Joel song says, the good old days weren’t always good, something that the authors take pains to acknowledge:

Was everything perfect during the period of bourgeois cultural hegemony? Of course not. There was racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism. However, steady improvements for women and minorities were underway even when bourgeois norms reigned. Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture.

Wax and Alexander then go on to suggest that a return to those old-fashioned values—hard work, delayed gratification, getting married before having kids and staying married after you do—would go a long way toward alleviating the poverty and dependency that far too many Americans have fallen into.

For anyone raised in a stable home, this advice is about as unremarkable as it gets.  If it was a beer, it would be Miller Lite.  If it was an ice cream flavor, it would be pralines and nothing.  How anybody could find fault with someone telling you to keep your nose clean and to not screw up is beyond me.

But then, I’m not a college academic—and it turns out there were a fair number of them who took exception to the authors’ hypothesis.  Heather MacDonald does a fine job of rounding up the objections in her Wall Street Journal article, so I won’t get into the gory details here.  Suffice it to say that there are a fair number of her colleagues who don’t think Wax should be allowed to teach law to impressionable young minds anymore.  As for Alexander, the dean of USD’s law school—a nominally down the middle moderate—got so freaked out that he circulated a memo to the student body disavowing the op-ed.  Such is the state of academic discourse these days.

The criticism primarily focused on the authors’ fondness for an era in American history that progressives consider to be a hellish gulag or sexism and racism.  How dare they suggest that we return to the days of keeping women pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen and Rosa Parks at the back of the bus?  Of course, Wax and Alexander never said any such thing.  Those who would be outraged on behalf of the marginalized deliberately missed the money quote from the article:

Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture.

Or, as those of us without a PhD might put it, American culture has evolved to the point where we can encourage old-fashioned values without holding on to the old-fashioned bigotries.  Tenured academics, meanwhile, would rather throw the baby out with the bath water.

What’s really tragic in all of this—beyond the utter stupidity of it—is that it shows just how little progressives actually care about the people they claim to be protecting.  In their zeal to make certain nobody hurts their feelings with tough talk about changing the culture of dependency, these elites are undercutting just how vital it is that everyone—particularly marginalized people—adopt the same productive habits the elites teach their own children.  Without those habits, one poor generation will beget yet another in an endless cycle of poverty and despair.  If they truly want poor people to succeed, why are progressives denying them the means to do so?

About the author

Marc Giller

View all posts